If you try sometimes – you can get what you need

I'll lose a few minutes less sleep each night worrying about Electronic Eternity – thanks to the serendipitous appearance of  John Markoff's recent piece on Vanish in the New York Times Science section:

A group of computer scientists at the University of Washington has developed a way to make electronic messages “self destruct” after a certain period of time, like messages in sand lost to the surf. The researchers said they think the new software, called Vanish, which requires encrypting messages, will be needed more and more as personal and business information is stored not on personal computers, but on centralized machines, or servers. In the term of the moment this is called cloud computing, and the cloud consists of the data — including e-mail and Web-based documents and calendars — stored on numerous servers.

The idea of developing technology to make digital data disappear after a specified period of time is not new. A number of services that perform this function exist on the World Wide Web, and some electronic devices like FLASH memory chips have added this capability for protecting stored data by automatically erasing it after a specified period of time.

But the researchers said they had struck upon a unique approach that relies on “shattering” an encryption key that is held by neither party in an e-mail exchange but is widely scattered across a peer-to-peer file sharing system…

The pieces of the key, small numbers, tend to “erode” over time as they gradually fall out of use. To make keys erode, or timeout, Vanish takes advantage of the structure of a peer-to-peer file system. Such networks are based on millions of personal computers whose Internet addresses change as they come and go from the network. This would make it exceedingly difficult for an eavesdropper or spy to reassemble the pieces of the key because the key is never held in a single location. The Vanish technology is applicable to more than just e-mail or other electronic messages. Tadayoshi Kohno, a University of Washington assistant professor who is one of Vanish’s designers, said Vanish makes it possible to control the “lifetime” of any type of data stored in the cloud, including information on Facebook, Google documents or blogs. In addition to Mr. Kohno, the authors of the paper, “Vanish: Increasing Data Privacy with Self-Destructing Data,” include Roxana Geambasu, Amit A. Levy and Henry M. Levy.

[More here]

My email address

I'm writing this post in case your version of my email address has “windows.microsoft.com” in it.

The “windows.microsoft.com” domain is being repurposed for some higher good.  So going forward, please write to me with the usual address (same local-part) but at “@microsoft.com” instead of “@windows.microsoft.com”).

Electronic Eternity

From the Useful Spam Department :  I got an advertisement from a robot at “complianceonline.com” that works for a business addressing the problem of data retention on the web from the corporate point of view. 

We've all read plenty about the dangers of teenagers publishing their party revels only to find themselves rejected by a university snooping on their Facebook account.  But it's important to remember that the same issues affect business and government as well, as the complianceonline robot points out:

“Avoid Documentation ‘Time Bombs’

“Your own communications and documents can be used against you.

“Lab books, project and design history files, correspondence including e-mails, websites, and marketing literature may all contain information that can compromise a company and it's regulatory compliance. Major problems with the U.S. FDA and/or in lawsuits have resulted from careless or inappropriate comments or even inaccurrate opinions being “voiced” by employees in controlled or retained documents. Opinionated or accusatory E-mails have been written and sent, where even if deleted, still remain in the public domain where they can effectively “last forever”.

“In this electronic age of My Space, Face Book, Linked In, Twitter, Blogs and similar instant communication, derogatory information about a company and its products can be published worldwide, and “go viral”, whether based on fact or not. Today one's ‘opinion’ carries the same weight as ‘fact’.”

This is all pretty predictable and even banal, but then we get to the gem:  the company offers a webinar on “Electronic Eternity”.  I like the rubric.  I think “Electronic Eternity” is one of the things we should question.  Do we really need to accept that it is inevitable?  Whose interest does it serve?  I can't see any stakeholder who benefits except, perhaps, the archeologist. 

Perhaps everything should have a half-life unless a good argument can be made for preserviing it.